“Excuse me, do you know the way to the nude beach?”
“Uh, sorry?” Before I can answer the smiling stranger, my phone rings, buzzing against my leg and making me jump. I fumble to answer it, clumsy in my confusion.
It’s the office. I’m on vacation. I shouldn’t answer—but what if it’s an emergency? And—
Hold on a second. Nude beach?
My phone rings again before I can gather my scattered thoughts enough to ask. Too late—the stranger’s already walking away. I want to chase after him, but…I stare down at my phone. What if it really is an emergency? Mentally shoving my thoughts into order, I start walking as I accept the call. Resentfully.
“Melanie Walker speaking.”
“Miss Walker, I need you to set up a meeting between me and Nick in Editorial. He’s been up to something. What exactly are we paying him for?” Thaddeus Mitchell III’s voice slides up my spine and lodges behind my eyes—a migraine in the making.
“I’m not in the office, Thaddeus.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” The implication being that I do nothing at work. “There’s a lightbulb burned out in the stairwell that you need to see to.”
Thaddeus Mitchell III was hired at the online women’s magazine H2T (Head 2 Toe) as a sales consultant one month ago and has been a raging pain in my ass for each of those thirty-one days. I’d say twentysomething, allowing for weekends, but he basically went Miranda Priestly and has been contacting me outside of work hours as well. Much like he’s doing now.
“Thaddeus, contact Maintenance about the light. Their number is in the company directory. I’m HR. If you want to set up a meeting with Nick”—who’s doing nothing wrong—“you’ll have to talk to Valerie directly or wait until I get back. I’m on vacation right now.”
“You have your cell phone—a marvel of technology, will wonders never cease? Send an email. Let’s get this show on the road.”
This sarcastic, condescending asshole was hired directly by my boss, and what rankles the most isn’t that he’s woefully unqualified, or that he doesn’t need the paycheck—and has bragged about it to anyone who will listen.
No. It’s the way he treats me when no one’s looking. More than that, it’s the way I let him get to me instead of brushing him off the way I can everyone else. I dig my nails into my palm, annoyed as hell that stomping out my frustration is proving impossible because I’m wearing flip-flops on sand.
“No.” I’m tired of him turning the place I love to work into a hell I dread entering. He’s the main reason I needed to get out of New York for a break.
I think I’ve finally gotten his attention. “Talk to Valerie, or send an email and wait until I get back. Do not call me again at this number.”
“You’re going to regret this lack of professionalism.”
“Have a nice day,” I grit out through clenched teeth and end the call.
I’d like to lose a high heel in his ass, but that would be unprofessional. He’s lucky I haven’t complained to my boss—not that he’s committed a fireable offense—but I refuse to let him invade my vacation.
I glare at my phone, hitch my beach bag higher on my shoulder, and walk faster, loathing Thaddeus’s intrusion. I focus on my feet and concentrate on taking slow breaths. Even twelve hundred miles away, I’m not free from him.
You’d be free of him if you moved over to Editorial.
The thing is, I’m great at my job, and it’s what I know. Then again, maybe I know HR a little too well and the luster’s worn off. And that’s part of the problem that’s been steadily nagging at me with every new idea for an article I have—that I’ve worked my ass off to get to the wrong place in life and am fighting for a career that doesn’t fit anymore.
Plus, in another department, I wouldn’t have to deal with the petty crap people like Thaddeus dump on me every day.
I want to throw my phone when it dings in my hand, but this time, it’s a text from my best friend, Bailey, who works as a features editor at H2T.
Bailey: What’s your Switch partner like?
I text back as I walk down the beach.
Me: We won’t meet in person until after the Switch, but if the photographs tacked to the corkboard in her bedroom are anything to go by, Shelby Kellerman’s life is a cross between an imported beer commercial and an Abercrombie & Fitch ad.
Me: Effortlessly beautiful people having a great time no matter what they’re doing. Drinking at the bar, smiling at a concert, running on the beach—each picture made me want to jump inside and spend time there.
Bailey: What did she look like?
Me: Leggy, blond, taller than I thought, freckles across the bridge of her nose that give her an air of innocence despite a body that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of Sports Illustrated or Victoria’s Secret. Light-brown eyes, and her hair has natural highlights from the sun.
Not that I had been obsessing over those pictures or anything.
Bailey: I don’t know if I should have a crush on her or hate her viciously. lol
Me: I know how you feel!
If I’d grown up here instead of New York, would I be like that? Shelby radiates happiness and serenity. Why would she want to Switch her breezy life for mine, even temporarily?
Bailey: How’s the house?
Me: Disgustingly big. What’s she going to think of my cramped apartment, stuffed with books and with stark-white walls I’ve never gotten around to painting? Every room in her place is a different color.
Bailey: It’s all part of the authentic Brooklyn experience. lol
Me: I guess. But she gets a freaking sea breeze, Bails. The nicest thing the wind blows into my apartment is a sickly spiciness from the Thai place a few doors down.
Bailey: She didn’t sign up to Switch apartments with you for three weeks to be in a place exactly like hers. It’s about experiencing something new, same reason you did it, right?
Me: That’s for sure. I had to flee the oppressive spaciousness and head to the beach.
Bailey: Awesome! Get some sun for me! You’re OK, though?
Not even my best friend knows everything about my sudden need to escape my life.
Me: I’m fine. Adjusting to all the sunshine and personal space.
Bailey: I don’t want to beach block you. Call me later! Remember—you’re there for a fun time. Seize it by the short and curlies!
Me: I will.
Bailey’s right. Fuck Thaddeus. Fuck the day from hell that sent me here. I spread my towel and settle on it, digging in my bag for the bottle of water I packed.
The breeze rolling off the ocean hits me, counteracting the heat with a deliciously salty tang, and I put my cell away, determined to be fully present in this moment. If vitamin D is the feel-good vitamin, I’m going to soak up as much as I can. I need to feel good right about now. I’m doing the most adventurous thing I’ve ever done, and no one can take that away from me.
Walking up King’s Point Drive to the beach felt like an adventure in a foreign land. People are friendlier and wear less clothing in Miami—clothing in a dazzling rainbow of colors—and a lot of women seem to wear bikini tops instead of real shirts or tank tops. Is this why they seem happier in Florida, or is it all the space? Maybe it’s just because it’s so close to the beach.
Without the tall buildings reaching high above like back home, the sky is nearly oppressively open, and I squint up at it for a moment before my eyelids pinch shut against the brightness of the sun. Shelby’s condo is on a little almost-island surrounded by water, with the Oleta River State Park on the west and the ocean a couple blocks to the east. I’m in Miami, but somehow I feel like I’m in an oasis away from it all.
I absorb the sultry thickness, blind to anything but that ocean scent, so unfamiliar and pleasant. I lie back on my elbows, relishing the pure sizzle of the sun on my skin…for about three minutes because, damn, it’s hot. How do sun worshippers do this every day without feeling the need to hire someone to baste them every half hour? Either that or hire a cabana boy to fan them and hand-feed them peeled fruits. Screw grapes—I’d like someone to peel the white crap off my oranges for me.
I grin and look around for a hypothetical candidate.
Sweat beads on my upper lip and tickles my back. Maybe I should mosey to that little stand where they’re renting oversize umbrellas to people who didn’t bring one—like me.
The stand where a woman in her late seventies waits in line, completely naked.
Blinking hard doesn’t make clothes appear on her body; her nudity isn’t a mirage. But what the hell is she doing? Is she a vagrant or someone senile who wandered away from her family? Did the ocean knock her bathing suit off? Was it eaten by a shark?
I blindly grope—grab—for my bottle of water because maybe this is a vision or hallucination brought on by the heat. Why isn’t anyone freaking out about Naked Grandma? Is it like staring at the sun? No one wants to see that, so a glance burns your eyes and you don’t try again or tell anyone you did it because it’s universally not done? Is everyone pretending they didn’t notice so they don’t have to make eye contact with her and tell her to put some clothes on?
She’s just naked and loitering like she’s waiting to check out at the grocery store.
Any minute now, someone’s going to approach her and say, “There you are, Mildred! Let’s get you tucked back into this caftan so you can parade around the beach with dignity and style.”
Swallowing a mouthful of water, I screw the cap back on the bottle and finally take a proper look at the people on the beach. There are some bathing suits, but…
Oh my God. No wonder no one’s saying anything to Mildred. My toes curl with embarrassment, even though I’m fully clothed with a long T-shirt over my tankini, because I’m somehow feeling exposed while covered up. Apparently, embarrassment through osmosis is a thing. I’ve never seen this much flesh in my entire life.
A topless thirtysomething woman applies sunscreen to her legs, her breasts jiggling with every motion.
Stop staring at her.
A naked man runs up the beach with a surfboard, flaccid penis bouncing around like one of those wacky, waving, inflatable, arm-flailing tube men.
Stop staring, Melanie!
An extremely muscular man jogs by, and my gaze zooms to his crotch with startling accuracy, like I’ve had years of checking out naked packages.
The thing is, I’ve never really seen a flaccid penis before. In my experience, by the time I’m in close proximity, they’re…ready for business, and who really pays attention after sex? You either get dressed or you’re snuggling with the guy under the covers, not staring at his spent member. My longest relationship was seven months, but we never lived together, so I haven’t experienced a naked, unaroused man casually strolling around my personal space.
A few more men stroll by, and I can’t—look—away.
I didn’t know thighs could be so hairy.
Old guys, young guys, burly guys, and skinny guys strolling around in the bright, bright sunlight, unafraid of getting burned in vital places. I mean, they have to put sunscreen on, but how can they apply it without being inappropriate? Talk about indecent overexposure!
Huh. Penises are so much sadder when they’re soft, sort of shrunken in on themselves like they’re embarrassed. It’s fascinating, and I absolutely cannot look at them without gawking. But the women are in the buff as well, letting it all hang out for everyone to see. Muscles ripple, booties jiggle, and I’m freaking mesmerized at how nonchalant everyone is about this.
Wow, that man’s legs are hairy. It’s like he’s wearing fuzzy leg warmers.
Some people are wearing clothes, to be fair, but their suits might as well be invisibility cloaks. I’m blinded by flesh.
This has to be how teenage boys feel during a hormone storm.
A lady’s ice-cream cone drips onto her. Oh my gosh, that can’t be sanitary. And is everyone fine with getting sand everywhere? The lady with the cone sees me staring and slides her sunglasses down her nose, peering at me over them and giving a friendly grin.
Oh my God, I need to get out of here.
I stand and stuff my things back into my bag, hightailing it out. I stop short, nearly grabbing a woman’s boobs when I aim my hands for her shoulders. “Sorry!” Dodging around her, I keep my eyes down, but that makes my brain wonder feverishly if the toes belong to someone who’s naked—and if their feet match what I think the bodies should look like, based on flip-flops and nail polish…or toe hair.
Preoccupied with a huge pair of men’s feet and trying very hard not to look up, I collide with a fortysomething man wearing nothing but flip-flops and a gold necklace—and sprawl face-first on the sand.
“Whoops!” He squats down just as I turn my head to spit out some sand, and this is not his most flattering angle. He’s slick with oil, and when he helps me to my feet, he leaves shiny patches on my hands and forearms. “You OK?”
“I’m fine.” My voice comes out an octave too high, and I ooze out an embarrassed “Thanks” and scurry away, still smelling like his coconut suntan oil.
Was that rude? Should I have stayed and chatted with him? How the hell do you chat with a shiny, naked guy? Flustered, I rush back the way I originally came, stopping when I find what I’m looking for.
This is where the stranger asked about the nude beach before. Now that I’m here again, I see the signs pointing to Sunny Isles Beach—where I was trying to go instead of Haulover Beach. Thaddeus’s call must have distracted me.
I can’t believe it, but the sign for Haulover confirms what the boldly bared genitals have already shown me.
I found the nude beach.